In September 1940, George Davis, the eccentric fiction editor of Harper's Bazaar, suggested to Carson McCullers -- just 22 and fresh off her success with The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter -- that they turn a dilapidated row house with a view of the Brooklyn Bridge into an artists' commune. They persuaded Wystan Auden -- at 33, already as famous as Yeats and Eliot -- to join them. Soon the house on Middagh Street was the most famous artistic salon in America.
Ever wonder what it would be like to invite a gaggle of temperamental artists over for dinner? In February House: The Story of W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten and Gypsy Rose Lee, Under One Roof in Wartime America (Houghton Mifflin), Sherill Tippins satisfies your curiosity. Turns out they're even bitchier than the rest of us. And don't expect grand theories of cross-pollination -- writers inspiring composers and vice versa -- because what they thrived on most was simply an atmosphere of nonconformity (even if Auden did insist on house rules).
A typical scene included "George naked at the piano with a cigarette in his mouth, Carson on the floor with half a gallon of sherry, and Wystan bursting in like a headmaster, announcing: 'Now then, dinner!'" Of the unabashed sexuality at parties, critic Louis Untermeyer said, "Gypsy did not strip, but Auden did plenty of teasing." Those parties attracted the likes of Balanchine, Bernstein, Copland, Dali and Saroyan.
But then Auden also studied Reinhold Niebuhr on a Christian artist's duty in time of war and labored at Britten's side on the libretto of Paul Bunyan. Typing next to a life-size cardboard cutout of herself, Gypsy pecked out The G-String Murders. Carson wrote The Ballad of the Sad Cafe after watching an Amazon and a hunchback work at one of the waterfront's dive bars.
In the end, Pearl Harbor -- along with the pressure of artistic commitments, sexual jealousy, shifting political views and juvenile animosities -- split up the communal experiment. But even a partial list of what was accomplished (or at least launched) on Middagh Street -- The Sea and the Mirror, The Member of the Wedding, The Sheltering Sky, Peter Grimes, Gypsy -- suggests that, even with all the signs of impending war, these rambunctious artists, still in their 20s and 30s, had begun to discover how to point the way toward -- it was to be hoped -- a better postwar world.